Future, Past, Present, Perfect | What We’re Reading

Library Journal editors visit dystopias, finish a family saga, and transcribe the news this week.

transcriptionistLiz French, Associate Editor, Reviews, LJ
People, get ready, because today I’m gonna preach: Get yourself out there and get a copy of Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist, coming out in May from Algonquin. I snagged an ARC from the publisher at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter conference in Philadelphia, thanks to LJ’s Prepub Editor Barbara Hoffert. (Dear Barbara: THANKS for the LJ Galley Guide you put together for ALA Midwinter attendees! It was super helpful, especially the booth-by-booth listings.) I stopped by the Workman/Algonquin booth and inquired about The Transcriptionist at a very opportune time: the boothies were passing out lemon bars and brownies. And yes, they did happen to have ARCs of Rowland’s debut. My lucky day! I cast aside the two other books I’ve been reading alternately and dove in.

It’s the story of a lonely woman who works as a transcriptionist at “the Record,” a thinly disguised New York Times (where Rowland has worked for more than a decade). Lena becomes obsessed with a woman who was mauled to death by lions at the zoo, and she begins to worry that all the words and stories she records (aha, just got that trope!) for the journalists are invading her mind. Rowland writes very poetically, and that poetry-prose is interspersed with hilarious skewerings of New York Times—er, I mean Record—stories. Here’s a fun one from the paper’s “Vows” column, dictated by an irate reporter who wants to get off the wedding beat:

“OK. Vows column. Elizabeth, the daughter of the former finance minister of a South American country, and Drake, the son of Victor V. W. Blankoff, met at a polo match in Brazil. They plan to travel the world for a year and then make a documentary film.
“ ‘We want to take our time,’ the bride said, her eyes as blue as a Tiffany’s box, ‘and find a deserving subject. We’re going to start doing research right away, on our honeymoon safari in Africa. I can’t wait to go to Africa.’
“The groom, twenty-nine, is a retired hedge fund founder and a buyer of polo horses and conceptual art.”

There’s more like that, including an interview with a pretentious architect/developer, but the book is much more than a satire. It is a moving, expressive delight of a debut. People, go read it! Amen.

allchangeMargaret Heilbrun, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
My sister sent me a wonderful present: The British edition of the last volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s “Cazalet Chronicles” series, All Change. It published late last year in Britain and is due out here in late March as a paperback original from Pan Books. Howard died earlier this month, aged 90. Her Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, and Casting Off, and now this last one) is one to sink yourself into if you enjoy family sagas more about choices made, and emotions expressed or suppressed, than in grand action and schemes. Possessing a fascination for the British upper middle class and the changes of the mid–20th century helps. The first of the series was published over 20 years ago. Many readers had not expected this final volume. What a wonderful gift.

readyStephanie Klose, Media Editor, LJ
I just started Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Broadway), which is set in a not-great near future after fossil fuels have been completely depleted and everything is basically the worst. Wade Watts lives in an abandoned van and uses an exercise bike hooked up to a battery recharger to power his laptop, which lets him log into the OASIS, the virtual world where thousands of elaborate worlds are his to explore. When the OASIS’s founder dies without an heir, his video will reveals that he’s hidden 1980s pop culture–related clues somewhere in his sprawling creation, and that whoever finds the keys to unlock his secret will inherit his billions. I’m not far into the book yet, but I’m enjoying it immensely and looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.


expirationMeredith Schwartz, Editor, News & Features, LJ
I just finished Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell, one of the too many galleys I succumbed to at ALA Midwinter. The book will release in April from Tor Teen. It seems to be somewhat of an inheritor/hybrid of P.D. James’s The Children of Men and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: the former in that humanity has had an as-yet-unexplained, near-total fertility failure, which we are observing through the lens of its impact on England; the latter in that the mitigation involves creating young people who are attending a version of the British aristocratic school system but are not regarded as fully human and are not permitted to live out a normal life span. If I hadn’t read either of those other titles, I would probably have loved this one, because the basic ideas remain compelling. However as it is, most of the new or different elements it brought to the mix were not my favorites.
The heroine’s father is a vicar, and not only his teachings but the way that the worldbuilding works add a Christian emphasis which, as a nonChristian, I found rather alienating. It’s not just that religious characters see their ethics through a religious lens, or that misfortune has driven people back to religion, but that the only religion shown is Christianity—isn’t the UK rather more diverse than that?—and that the Church of England is not shown to be at all challenged or at a loss in the face of these massive societal troubles. Or even successfully changing itself to meet the new need…that near total sterility would not produce any alterations worth mentioning in either individual or collective faith is more than my suspension of disbelief can swallow.
It is hard to talk about my second issue without spoilers, but let’s just say that having reprised a classic moral dilemma of the sf field in creating artificial intelligence, I did not find the ethical “take a third option” conclusion to be convincing or satisfying, while a previously interesting element—a voice from the far future which was reacting and responding to the story—was disappointingly resolved. Nonetheless it would make a good YA first exposure to these ideas for kids not ready for the James or Ishiguro titles, particularly in its more hopeful ending.

Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench